In the spotlight:

Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas & Aicha Macky

"If you have the same heart for what the story is about, then you are on the right track."

Industry Talk: My film, my vision! Maintaining the editorial voice within international collaborations - IDFA 2021

International co-producing for filmmakers from the Global South

Documentary filmmakers from the Global South frequently face a difficult dilemma. Sufficient financial support in their own countries is often hard to come by, so they have to rely on international funds, co-producing partners, workshops, co-production markets, and commissioning editors. In such an environment, it can be a challenge to keep your vision intact and tell your story the way you want to tell it.

This was the topic of the talk entitled "My film, my vision: Maintaining the editorial voice within international collaborations," which took part at IDFA last November. The speakers were the Zinder director Aïcha Macky from Niger and Indian directing-producing team Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, who made one of the biggest documentary hits of 2021, Writing with Fire, which has just been nominated for the Oscars. "You shouldn't forget that if somebody is investing financially, they have their own objectives for investing in your film," said Macky, whose film screened in IDFA's Best of Fests after world-premiering at Visions du Réel. "So it was very important for me to find people who have a similar vision and the same ethical approach to the subject. If you have the same heart for what the story is about, then you are on the right track." In Zinder, which is the name of her hometown, Macky gets unprecedented access to gangs that have sprung up in the Kara Kara neighborhood, the former lepers’ quarter and the pariahs’ district, and are spreading their influence. Obsessed by a culture of bodybuilding and violence, the gang members induce fear in the population. She follows three of these members and gives us a sense of their desire to break free from the cycle of violence which has built their identities.

Ghosh, whose company Black Ticket Films produced Writing with Fire along with minority co-producers EOdocs (the Netherlands), JW Documentaries (Finland), and Sant & Usant (Norway), said, referring to the number of partners they had worked with: "We thought we'd made a 90-minute film, but then the closing credits of three and half minutes are a testimony that you need an entire tribe to make a film."

The film, which deals with the Khabar Lahariya, the only Indian media outlet run entirely by women, world-premiered at Sundance last year and became a true sensation, winning the Audience Award and the Special Jury Award for Impact and Change, going on to win 26 more prizes—including the Audience Award at IDFA 2021. Ghosh and Thomas follow the reporters as they transition from a newspaper to online portal in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with 200 million inhabitants, also known for its notorious levels of corruption, violence against women, and the brutal oppression of its minorities. The reporters belong to Dalit, one of the most oppressed and marginalized groups in India. “For long, we’ve witnessed the extractive storytelling of the West,” Ghosh explained, “where the representation of India is built around flies and elephants, poverty and victimhood. India is much more complex and richer than that.” "And this is an issue in India as well, especially when we’re talking about the representation of minority communities. Our film is about Dalit women who have transformed the media landscape in more ways than one and we wanted to imbue the film with their power and grace.”

Film still: Writing with Fire, dir. Sushmit Ghosh & Rintu Thomas

Human adventure

The filmmakers agree with Macky that to achieve this, one has to find the right partners. "For us it started with making sure the producing rights stayed with us, that we were always the majority producer," said Thomas. "We knew this was going to be a very sensitively told and highly contextual story, and we wanted as few people as possible in the editing room." Unfortunately, India has no structures, except for the Docedge Kolkata co-production market, to support documentary productions. So Thomas and Ghosh had to look elsewhere for fundraising. "We were looking for people who would fight for our film and our vision, and for the majority of the money to come back to India," she said. "There are many funds in Europe who mandate that you spend it in their country. And that's a bit counterintuitive. I wanted to work with people that I trust, at rates they charge in my film industry, including those in the highly specialized roles like color grading and sound design. If you are a sound designer in an EU country, it's not about your skill set, it's about your exposure to what India sounds like." Because of the support they received from the Finnish Film Foundation, the duo constantly talked to their Finnish co-producer, John Webster, who understood their point of view. With some fine "art of negotiation," as Ghosh put it, even though the fund required the sound money to be spent in Finland, they managed to do the entire sound design with Susmith 'Bob' Nath in India. Due to the pandemic, the final mix eventually had to be done between the two countries.

“The challenge was that for the final sound mix, the director is supposed to work physically and intimately in a sound studio,” Thomas recalled. “With the pandemic, Finnish sound designer Janne Laine was working in his Helsinki studio and we were working from Mumbai. This was a massive logistical and creative challenge for everyone. How we pulled it off and came out of it sane is a miracle!” Macky in Niger, on the other hand, did not have the advantage of existing specialized crews in a country with a strong cinematic tradition such as India, except for the local sound recordist Abdoulaye Adamou Mato. Consequently, she worked with an international team, including French cinematographer Julien Bossé and editors Karen Benainous and Coline Leaute, and German sound designer Andreas Hildebrandt. "Niger doesn't have any local cinema funds, and it's very hard because culturally people come from very different perspectives. But this is why it is crucial for the crew members to see filmmaking primarily as a human adventure, and not as a business," Macky said. When Bossé was supposed to come to Zinder, he was on the fence because of the tensions in the region, asking Macky if there was any danger from terrorism. She replied there would probably be no problems. "When he agreed to come with me and we went to the Nigerian border, the police arrested us," she recalled. "They took the camera, and I was very scared, because if something happened to him, it was my responsibility. If this was just business, he wouldn't have come. This is why I say that, for me, cinema is first a human adventure and only after that can it be a business."

Film still: Zinder, dir. Aicha Macky

The obstacle of cultural differences and prejudices

The first fund to get on board with Writing with Fire was Montreal’s Alter-Ciné. "We then pitched at Docedge Kolkata, where heads of major film funds were present, including IDFA, Sundance, Tribeca, and the Sheffield Meet Market," said Ghosh. "The IDFA Bertha Fund was the next to give us a grant and also invited us to pitch at the Forum—that's when it really kicked off and all the other funds started rallying around the project." Development workshops and labs helped Ghosh and Thomas focus on their project, but also exchange views and ideas with other filmmakers. Input from potential co-producers and commissioning editors was also often useful, but there were moments in which they recognized how cultural differences and deeply entrenched prejudices can harm their project. "When we pitched at IDFA Forum, a commissioning editor approached us and said that it's a great project, and we'll ‘make it into the new India's Daughter'," Ghosh remembered. India's Daughter is a 2015 BBC documentary directed by the British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, and is considered highly problematic in India because of many ethical issues including consent and victimization of rape survivors. Ghosh says they were making Writing with Fire as something completely opposite.

In another pitching market, Ghosh was asked by a European producer why there were so many rapes in India. “I said, maybe for the same reason that there are so many rapes other countries—for example, Sweden is among the top three countries in the world that report the highest statistics for rape. The producer was puzzled and googled it, and there it was: the USA, Sweden and Australia,” he recalled. “The irony is that our film was very much about framing the cultural context.” Macky had a similar experience in various labs and workshops she went through with her project. Even though they were often useful for her to shape the story, she sensed a danger of losing her own voice and approach. "When you are new to this process, you feel like you have to go along," she said. "But gradually you start to realize it's not your film anymore, that mentors try to impose how the film should look, and you start feeling alienated from your own film. For example, there was a mentor who insisted that there should be a mention of Boko Haram. Even though Niger borders with Nigeria, my story had nothing to do with that. I told the mentor, it's fine if you want to make that film but that's not my film."

Industry Talk: My film, my vision! Maintaining the editorial voice within international collaborations - IDFA 2021

Creating impact in society and the film industry

Macky proved to be right to stick to her vision, and Zinder went on to be selected at numerous festivals and win ten prizes, including the Adiaha Award for Best Documentary Film by an African woman at the Encounters in Durban, as well as the Best West African Woman Director and Ambassador of Peace awards at FESPACO in Ouagadougou. She used this success to strengthen the film industry in her country, which has only one regular cinema for its 25 million inhabitants. The president of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, was so proud of her achievement that he opened a cinema fund worth €1.5 million to support the development of the local film industry. "It's the first clear attempt to support the film business in Niger, so we need to be very conscious in order to build a sustainable film structure," she said. The Writing with Fire team focused on social impact from the very beginning, as it is the core of both their film and what their protagonists are doing. This focus point was also crucial for their choice of partners. “In bringing partners, it was very important for us that they were aligned with us about the possible legacy of this film and what it could transform,” said Ghosh. The experience of making this film also made him think critically about the changing distribution landscape worldwide. A German commissioning editor had politely told them she didn't think their film was interesting for her audience. But Writing with Fire ended up screening at eleven film festivals in Germany, as well as the universities of Mainz and Göttingen.

"So, I thought, who is her audience?" he mused. "Because if you think your audience is like you, you have to think... your audience is also the Mexican family living down the block. The demographics across the world have changed. You have many different kinds of people living in your country, and I think commissioning editors need to rethink and reimagine who their audiences are." When it comes to helping their home film industry, they also learned a lot about the film business that they were able to bring back to their colleagues in India. "So many folks have reached out to us to ask us for advice on how you do a pitch, if you should get a sales agent now or later, on specific offers from potential co-producers," said Ghosh. "We made a lot of mistakes, and we don't want people to burn their fingers. Information is key and that's what is missing in India: breaking it down for fellow filmmakers and telling them about it." In this way, the entire process of making a documentary film in the Global South can influence a true change on multiple levels, creating impact both in society and the film industry. "We see that more people of color and women are coming into positions of leadership. And they are creating a tectonic shift within their systems, which is allowing more folks like us to be able to tell our stories, the way we want to. That really helps people like us do what we are doing," Sushmit concluded.

By Vladan Petkovic

Film still: Writing with Fire, dir. Sushmit Ghosh & Rintu Thomas